Abandoning false hope
One of the highlights of our camping holiday in the Yorkshire Dales this summer was a 4 mile walk around the Ingleton waterfalls. This spectacular ramble involves an ascent up the gorge of the River Twiss before descending down the narrower and rockier gorge of the River Doe. One of the curiosities of the outing was the requirement to pay for it. In Scotland we are accustomed to enjoying the features of nature free of charge, but south of the border there is invariably a kiosk inhabited by an outstretched hand beneath a menu of charges. Donít they realise that we Scots Ďdoí camping and walking holidays to minimise, or even better to avoid, parting with cash?
The days prior to our visit to Ingleton were very wet and as a result the waterfalls were at their full and spectacular best, the largest being Thornton Force, where water cascades down a 14 metre drop, and which, we were informed, attracted the eye of the artist Turner.
Finding running water rather mesmerising to watch, at several points in our walk I would stop and gaze as the water gushed and spouted through the narrow gorge. Before reaching Thornton Force we enjoyed the view of a series of smaller waterfalls. Whilst contemplating, as if transfixed, the series of drops, my eye was caught by a branch which must have been captured by the water further upstream. It appeared at the top of the highest waterfall of the group and then disappeared as it plunged down onto the next level where it briefly reappeared before plunging out of sight once again. This pattern repeated all the way down until its path took it round a bend below me and away from my gaze.
Sometime later I read Psalm 38, itself a description of the anguish of David as he experiences the isolation of illness, and in the midst of his illness has his eyes opened to the reality and gravity of his sin. As I read the Psalm, I was reminded of the image of the branch tumbling down the River Twiss, appearing briefly and then disappearing into the depths of the water. It struck me that the Psalm traces a similar experience for David. NaÔvely, we would think that the pattern of Davidís experience would be confession, followed by relief from his isolation and pain. We expect that the seeming impenetrable darkness of his depression would be followed by light and relief, especially since he openly confesses his sin. But the pattern is much more painful and protracted. The Psalm traces the searing pain of Davidís sense of isolation, from both God and other people. Occasionally he seems to rise from the depths of the darkness and glimpse something of the light: ĎAll my longings lie open before you O Lord, my sighing is not hidden from you.í (v.9) like the twig becoming visible above a waterfall, but this glimmer of light is then followed by another plunge into the darkness and the near despair of his sorrow ĎMy heart pounds, my strength fails me, even the light has gone from my eyes.í (v.10)
There is a natural question arising from the Psalm - why doesnít God bring an end to Davidís pain sooner? Why the protracted nature of this suffering?
We want Davidís pain to end near the beginning of the Psalm and for the poetry to reach a final resolution, but this penitential Psalm is less straightforward. It traces Davidís on-going pain and the darkness of his experience, with only occasional glimmers of light. The truth is, this can be our experience. Sometimes the Lord in His providence leads us into, and through, times of protracted darkness because he is working in us. Whilst we would wish such times to be brief, the Lord is much more confident of His workmanship in us, and patient in His craft of shaping us, than to resolve matters too soon.
Is it not the case that often we experience times of prolonged disappointment and even pain in our Christian lives because we need to be taught to abandon all other hopes in order to trust in the only true hope that is in Him? It takes time for us to be persuaded to set aside false hopes and seize hold more firmly of the one true hope.
This applies on many levels to our lives and experience, but it certainly applies to our experience within the Church of Scotland at present. Many of us were deeply disappointed and dismayed at the direction taken by this yearís General Assembly. It seems that we go from one setback and disappointment to another. Perhaps this has exposed our hold on false hopes, a carnal desire for the wrong kind of evangelical supremacy within the church, an expectation of influence that serves self rather than Christ and the Kingdom. Are we being humbled in order to be cleansed? Are we being taught to let go of false hopes, and selfish ambitions, in order to seize more firmly the one true hope that is Christ?